WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, who took office pledging to put science ahead of politics, averted a skirmish with conservatives in the nation’s culture wars Thursday by endorsing his health secretary’s decision to block over-the-counter sales of an after-sex contraceptive pill to girls younger than 17.
The administration action inevitably raised questions about whether politics was trump in this instance — especially from disappointed supporters in the scientific and women’s rights communities. Obama, who had criticized how his predecessor made decisions on issues like contraceptives, sought to dispel that idea in remarks to White House reporters.
“I did not get involved in the process,” he quickly asserted.
Obama said the decision was made by his secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius. On Wednesday, in a rare move, she overruled the Food and Drug Administration, which had recommended that the morning-after pill Plan B One-Step is safe and should be sold without a prescription to people younger than 17, just as it is now to those who are 17 and older.
“I will say this, as the father of two daughters: I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine,” Obama said.
“And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect. And I think most parents would probably feel the same way.”
Asked if he fully supported Sebelius, Obama said, “I do.”
The president’s remarks suggested social and cultural concerns even as he said Sebelius had acted out of scientific concerns; in particular, she cited the manufacturer’s failure to study whether girls as young as 11 could safely use the drug. And the issue has been a matter of political contention, with conservative and anti-abortion groups opposed and public health and women’s rights groups in favor.
Yet the response of those disappointed by the administration’s decision was more muted than in many such controversies, reflecting a broad sense that this was not a fight to pick with Republicans and conservative groups. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader and a stalwart of reproductive rights groups, neither endorsed nor criticized the decision, deferring to Sebelius even as she praised the FDA commissioner, Margaret Hamburg.